Teenage mutant ninja people
Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima; Why are these names associated with fear and foreboding? Because we know the potential dangers, albeit often overstated, of radioactive materials leaking from damaged nuclear power plants. We have read about the disastrous effects they can have on people, crops and stock.
But, isn’t there an upside to this? Surely the believers in evolution should be jumping with glee, hoping for some new mutation that will propel the human race to a new level of evolutionary progress? After all, we know about Spiderman, the Hulk, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the X-men, all of whom fictionally benefited hugely from contact with radioactive materials. Comic strips, movies and other popular publications have entrenched this positive idea of ‘mutants’ being superior to the ‘normal’ in the public mind. The reality, however, is vastly different.
Darwin’s theory of evolution relies on the selection of the ‘fittest’ from a continually varying population; but at the time he was writing, the Austrian monk and scientist, Gregor Mendel, was demonstrating that there are definite limits to the variation possible. Darwin provided no mechanism for broadening these limits, but modern ‘Neo-Darwinism’ suggests that extra variation can come through ‘mutations’. These are alterations to the normal genetic material that often produce alterations in the offspring, and these alterations can be selected for. They can and do occur naturally, as copying mistakes during cell replication, or under the influence of chemicals or radiation. They are the hope of evolutionists.
However, if these mutations are so desirable, and are responsible for the marvellous supposed success of accidental evolutionary invention and progress, why do we want to keep people from living near the Fukushima power plant amongst the leaked radioactive materials? Won’t there be lots of mutations? Can’t we expect some beneficial ones to appear and elevate the human race to a superior level?
Unfortunately not. The reality is that mutations caused by such influences as ionizing radiation are much more damaging than helpful. The DNA in a cell is like the instruction book for the cell’s workings, and any random changes will be like similar changes in an instruction book. Imagine a manual for the construction of something you know about. Now imagine making random changes to the letters and symbols in those instructions. Changes to “an” or “the” may not be significant, but a change from mm to m (millimetres to metres), or a 9 to a 2, or a change in the order of the pages, could be very damaging. Your construction would have significant faults (such as building the roof before the foundations), and might fail to work at all.
Radiation does this to genes—it scrambles the genetic instructions, and functionality is reduced, unless the built-in (created) repair mechanisms1 are able to cope. Scrambled instructions in the reproductive cells are passed on to offspring, and the genetic errors accumulate over the generations faster than they can be eliminated by natural selection.2
When the above fictional characters were being invented and popularized, scientists were actively working to produce mutated marvels. Many experiments with this kind of aim were conducted through the twentieth century.3 One research project involved the irradiation of millions of pine tree seeds. The researchers hoped that the mutations would produce super trees, growing faster, thicker and higher, with denser timber and fewer branches. Most of the irradiated seeds failed to germinate. Of those that grew, many died because of such problems as lack of chlorophyll, or proper vascular systems, while many that managed to live grew along the ground, or sprouted many trunks, or fuzzy leaves, or spongy trunks or showed other signs of disorganization. The only ones to survive any length of time were those that escaped significant mutational damage, and grew normally.4
Obviously, mutations were occurring in the DNA, but, just as obviously, the mutations were not creating the super-trees they were hoping for. Today, similar research continues, but usually with the expectation of a similarly damaged product, although the results may be useful to mankind.5 Examples of successful mutation breeding are dwarfed crop plants (short wheat plants don’t fall over in stormy weather), seedlessness in fruit and change of colour in flowers due to eliminating specific pigments. But, again, even when mutations do something useful, in each case it involves damaging existing genetic instructions, not gain of new ones. Furthermore, a recent paper showed that even the rare beneficial mutations tend to work against each other—the phenomenon called antagonistic epistasis.6
The same happens to any living thing, such as humans. If we receive a dose of radiation, we can expect at least some damage to the DNA in some of our cells. If it happens in only a couple of cells, we will hardly notice, so low doses (such as occasional X-rays) are OK. As the dose rises, the risk of damage also rises, so that one will begin to feel ill from ‘radiation poisoning’ as more cells get damaged. Higher doses may cause deformed offspring (if the damage occurs in a reproductive cell), or the shut-down of a specific organ, or cancer (which is, after all, a cell multiplying wrongly because its control genes have been damaged). Yet higher doses will cause irreparable damage in a large number of cells, leading to death7 (as the workers who volunteered to repair the Fukushima plant accepted).
Commercial irradiation of foodstuffs is deliberately used to kill all undesirable organisms within the packaging, and it does a thorough job by completely disrupting cell processes.
It is fear of such damage that caused the Japanese government to provide an exclusion zone around Fukushima, and has led to countries importing Japanese goods checking for any residual radiation. No informed person believes that anyone will benefit from random changes (mutations) in their genes. No one wants to be irradiated in the hope of beneficial mutations. No one wants to be an evolutionary experiment.
Our increasing knowledge of the content and activity of the genome assures us that the DNA of any creature is designed to produce exactly that creature, and any random change will damage the required set of instructions. It is even more obvious that the types of changes necessary for a Spiderman to exist are way beyond the bounds of possibility. Why then do some people believe that such changes have occurred in the past to make a bird out of a dinosaur, or a mammal out of a lizard, or a frog out of a fish? It is simply not possible. Mutations damage DNA. They don’t invent new, more complex traits.
While geneticists may make ‘improvements’ by deliberately transferring genes from one creature to another, this is using already-created information from the biosphere. Random changes due to radiation are not going to produce a ‘super’ creature, and especially not a new kind of creature. The genetic information God originally gave each kind of creature represented the full measure of genetic information for that organism, and chance mutations will never add coordinated instructions for the kinds of ‘improvements’ required to make microbes-to-mankind evolution possible
References and notes
- See for example New DNA repair enzyme discovered. Return to text.
- See Sanford, J., Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome, FMS, 2008. Return to text.
- For example: La Croix, Donald J, Radiosensitivity of Jack Pine Seed to Cobalt-60, Forest Science 10(3):293–295, 1 September 1964 .Return to text.
- A 1961 paper reported: “Average number of cones per bearing tree was 17 for the control, 10 for the irradiated. Thus survivals, heights and flowering have been less for the irradiated material than for the controls.” http://www.xn–rheinischesmuseumfrphilogie-2bd.com/fileadmin/content/dokument/archiv/silvaegenetica/10_1961/10-5-125.pdf p.126. Return to text.
- For example (crops other than pine trees): Mokobia, C. E. and Anomohanran, O., The effect of gamma irradiation on the germination and growth of certain Nigerian agricultural crops, J. Radiol.Prot. 25(2):181–8, 2005. Return to text.
- Doyle, S., The diminishing returns of beneficial mutations, 7 July 2011. Return to text.
- www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000026.htm and similar sites. Return to text.